Welcome to Chengdu
I knew something was wrong with my bag when I got to Changsha. I'd been changed from my original flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok in order to catch my connection to Changsha on time, and at each subsequent check-in, the attendant told me something different about where to pick it up (Originally, "It's checked all the way through to Chengdu." Then, in Bangkok, "You'll have to pick it up in Changsha to go through customs." Then, when it didn't show up at the baggage claim, "Oh, it's checked all the way through.")
Getting a straight answer is even more difficult when you don't speak the same language as the person you're asking. The girl at the check-in counter in Changsha fiddled with a translator app on her phone. "There no bag under your name on this flight," she told me. But after consulting with another attendant, she said they had found it, after all. "OK. Pick it up in Chengdu." I had the feeling she was just telling me what I wanted to hear. "They have no idea where it is," I thought to myself as I walked to my gate.
Sure enough, I arrived in Chengdu bag-less. Megan and her husband, Huo, were at the airport to pick me up, so Megan came back to chat with customer service. They told us to check in the next day because they would have to call all the airports I had passed through to figure out where the bag was.
"You are so calm!" Megan said as we walked to the car.
I think it was a combination of the fact that I had kind of expected it to happen and the fact that all my essentials (passport, wallet, phone, camera) were in my carry on. (The residual feelings of peace from reading Gilead and listening to Sufjan Stevens on the plane probably helped too). I figured I would just be a minimalist for the last few days of my trip.
I wasn't that hungry, but Huo and Megan insisted on taking me to get something to eat. Huo drove, completely ignoring traffic rules and red lights and just beeping the horn all the way through intersections. That seemed to be the norm in Chengdu. There was a constant hum of cars honking at all times. Megan had to force him to put on his seatbelt—apparently Chinese people really hate wearing seatbelts. The car would ding an alert if the person in the driver's seat didn't buckle up, but sometimes Huo would just snap the buckle in behind his back to avoid having the seatbelt across his chest.
I hadn't seen Megan since the spring of 2012. She had studied abroad at UNF during my junior year, and we had lived together spring semester. (Megan is her English name, which she got from the missionaries who shared the Gospel with her. Her real name is Yue, but I've always known her as Megan and she says she prefers it.) Since the Chinese government blocks basically everything (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google), the only contact we had for three years was some texting through WhatsApp. It was wonderful to see her again, and it was easy to slip right back into our friendship as if we'd never been apart.
We sat in the back seat and chatted as Huo drove. He doesn't speak English as well as Megan does, but he understands a decent amount, and he was picking up on words and phrases and slowly repeating them. "Traffic jam," "snacks," "collagen" (As Megan told me about how Chinese women and girls like to eat certain foods "for the beauty." I thought it was funny how often she said that about food. I've never heard anyone in the U.S. claim that eating certain foods makes you prettier.)
They took me to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, where we ate pigs feet stew, lotus roots, a sort of fermented rice soup and a few other dishes. I was the only foreigner in the restaurant, so I was getting a lot of strange looks (this turned out to be a theme throughout my time in China). Then we went to their brand new apartment, which was in a building that was so new, it was still under construction.
When I was in Thailand, William had told me that Thai people really don't like Chinese people. Apparently, a Thai person told him, "In America, you have raccoons. In Thailand, we have Chinese tourists." I was initially confused as to why that might be the case, but on my flights from Thailand to China, it became clear why the cultural differences might be rough for Thai people. Thai people are very respectful and quiet. They "wai" everyone, always say "thank you" and respect the rules. Chinese people tend to be louder, more prone to push for their way and pay less attention to rules ("No, you can take pictures," Megan would say when I pointed to a "no photos" sign at a place we visited).
On the plane to Changsha, people were standing up in the aisles and yelling over seats to one another. When the plane landed, everyone pushed toward the front of the plane. I think perhaps this perceived "rudeness" is a combination of living in cities, where you have to look out for yourself and be assertive, and the fact that pretty much every Chinese person under the age of 35 is an only child because of the one-child policy. Apparently, the Chinese government has started implementing manners classes in Chinese schools because rude kids have become a real problem.
Other than on the plane, I didn't experience much of that "rudeness" during my few days in China (besides being constantly stared at because I was a foreigner). Huo and Megan were wonderful hosts. They insisted on paying for almost every meal and everything we did—apparently, in Chinese culture, the host is supposed to pay for everything. "It will be rude if you don't let us!" Megan told me. But that didn't stop me from making them let me pay for a few Starbucks trips and lunches, and slipping a few hundred Yuan in Megan's purse before I left.